This state of the nation is one that asks you, for a few moments, to consider some information about the majority of South Africans. Some information about the biggest population group that is not a racial or religious group. This state of the nation asks “what is the problem” and “what can we do next”. This state of the nation is about women. This particular piece is part of a series, that will be published on, with particular focus topics. But it is of course, important to lay the groundwork for why a female state of the nation is so critical at this point in time.

If, at this point, you are not convinced that women make up a significant constituency, let me present you with some very simple facts. Women made up 51.3% of the population at the time of the 2011 census that was some 27 million females across the country. At that time 55% of women in South Africa were under the age of 29 years. African women make up the vast majority of women in South Africa, with 21 676 341 recorded in the 2011 census.[1]

So when you think about what the president says tomorrow, you need to be asking yourself, what does this mean for women? Have the decisions about budget, and planning considered the needs of this group? How are women being included or excluded?


It is typical to begin speeches like the State of the Nation (Sona) by acknowledging whereabouts in our democratic process we are. I think this context is important not only to reflect how far we’ve come but to remind ourselves to ask where we are going, and whether we are taking steps forward or backwards.

On February 11 we celebrate 25 years since the release of Nelson Mandela from prison. Nelson Mandela once said

“Freedom cannot be achieved unless the women have been emancipated from all forms of oppression.”

This remains true today.

In 2014 we celebrated the 20th year since our first democratic election, in addition, with the elections in May last year, we ushered in the fifth democratic government. In 2016 we will celebrate local government elections, as well as 20 years since the Constitution was drafted.

The South Africa Constitution forms the foundation for the many pieces of positive and empowering legislation that have emerged both to actively promote women’s rights, and to protect women from those who wish to infringe on them. It is celebrated around the world as a law that is progressive, and prevents discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender and sex. Without this powerful and brave commitment it is almost certain that the lives of all women in South Africa would be worse.

The Constitution also establishes the critical Chapter 9 institutions such as the South African Human Rights Commission and the Commission for Gender Equality. These institutions, once empowered oversight bodies with the power to recommend changes in the various spheres of influence government has. Sadly, in the recent past these Chapter 9 institutions have begun to be hamstrung by a political culture that sees criticism as an attack, rather than as something that helps inspire growth and improvement. The government has failed to act on the recommendations of these bodies, and failed to allocate them sufficient funding to perform the massive tasks they are required to do. Institutions supporting democracy are not add-ons, but part of the very core work of building the country that was envisioned by the drafters of the Constitution, and all those who worked to end apartheid.

2015 is also the year the Millennium Development Goals targeted as their year of completion. Goal 3 relates to the promotion of gender equality and empowerment of women. South Africa’s performance in the goals that relate to women has varied. We have met the goal of achieving universal primary education (Goal 2), but lack information on the attendance ratio and survival rates of girls. The second indicator for this goal is the share of women in wage employment, outside of the agricultural sector. In South Africa, women outnumber men in the occupations of clerks, technicians, and domestic work. In all other fields men outnumber women. Thus, the share of women outside of the agricultural sector remains lower than the target.[2] The third indicator for this goal is the proportion of seats held by women in National Parliament. As of the May 1 2014, South Africa was ranked fifth in the world in terms of gender representation at a parliamentary level.[3] However, it is worth noting that the number of women in the National Assembly has decreased since the 2009 – 2014 administration (the number of women in the National Council of Provinces has increased slightly).[4] In addition, the Speaker of the National Assembly and the Chairperson of the National Council of Provinces are both women.

Millennium Development Goal 5 was to improve maternal health for women with two primary goals of reducing maternal mortality by 75% and achieving universal access to reproductive healthcare. In fact, between 1990 and 2015 South Africa’s maternal mortality ratio has only decreased slightly, with the department of health estimating that 176 women die per 100 000 live births.[5] Of serious concern is that most of these deaths are determined to have been preventable by the department of health.[6] In terms of achieving universal access to reproductive health this is often measured by contraceptive prevalence and adolescent birth-rate, among other indicators. Both of these measures do not paint a good picture for the achievement of these goals, with couple year protection rates around 31.4% in 2009.[7] Between 2001 and 2011 the adolescent birth-rate declined by a mere 1.7%, and a total of 113 240 babies were born to mothers between 15 and 19 years old in 2011.[8] In terms of successes, the proportion of births attended by skilled health personnel has increased [9] though this does still vary between rural and urban areas.[10] Since 2003, great improvement in the coverage of antenatal care has been made.[11] By 2005, 97% of all women across South Africa accessed antenatal care when pregnant.[12] By 2011 this figure was 100.6% and thus South Africa met the target of at least one antenatal visit.[13] The percentage in excess of 100% reflects non-South Africans using antenatal care services.

Although we have made progress, we will not meet all Millennium Development Goals that will improve women’s lives. It will be important then to consider the State of the Nation in terms of the post-2015 agenda, and how South Africa as a country will ensure that these goals are met, sooner rather than later.

The National Development Plan (NDP), South Africa’s blueprint for how things will look 15 years from now, makes commitments to women’s rights in a number of sections. One of the six priorities of the plan is to reunite South Africans around common values, especially those of the Constitution. It recognises the progress women have made, while also acknowledging that patriarchal attitudes continue to stymie their progress.

The NDP makes a number of recommendations to address this persistent inequality [14], including the transformation of the economy, the celebration of women leaders, addressing social, cultural, religious and educational barriers to women entering the job market, making South Africa safer, ensuring security of tenure for female farmers, improving the health of pregnant women, improving the coverage of antiretroviral treatment to all HIV-positive people, and offering microbicides to all women 16 years and older. These are not small tasks, and the NDP allocates them to the department of women and to the Commission for Gender Equality. I will return to a critique of the department of women later, but what is important in considering these commitments is that as you listen to the State of the Nation tomorrow, you listen out to hear whether any of these commitments are mentioned, or any plans to support them are introduced.

The broad commitments made by the NDP have, for the next five years, been refined in the Medium Term Strategic Framework 2014 – 2019. In terms of Outcome 14, by 2015/16, policies aimed at making families better able to foster values such as tolerance, diversity, non-racialism, non-sexism and equity via the development of a draft strategy to strengthen the family should be drafted.

The truth is that despite the beautiful laws we have on paper, the policy commitments that originate from government, and the fact that things have improved since democracy came into effect, 20 years in, many women are feeling short-changed. Many women are feeling afraid. Many women are feeling angry. As the series will make clear, if it isn’t already, I think all of these feelings are legitimate.

As mentioned earlier, this state of the nation takes a number of parts, the next one being the state of the female economy. I hope that you read them all, and use them to consider whether it is sufficient to exclude women as an important and significant any longer.


[1] Statistics South Africa (2013). Census.

[2] South African Institute of Race Relations 2013. South Africa Survey. Page 252, 253

[3] The Inter-Parliamentary Union (2014).

[4] Levendale, C (2014).

[5] Department of Health (2012).

[6] The World Health Organisation (WHO), UNICEF, UNFPA, The World Bank, and United Nations Population Division (2013)

[7] Ibid.

[8] South African Institute of Race Relations (2013). Page 47.

[9] The National Coordinating Committee for the Millennium Development Goals (2013).

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] NDP Overview, page 43.

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  • Jennifer is a feminist, activist and advocate for women's rights. She has a Masters in Politics from Rhodes University, and a Masters in Creative Writing from UCT. In 2010 she started a women's writing project called 'My First Time'. It focuses on women's stories of significant first time experiences. Buy the book on the site or via Modjaji Books. Jen's first novel, The Peculiars, came out in February 2016 and is published by Penguin. Get it in good book stores, and on


Jen Thorpe

Jennifer is a feminist, activist and advocate for women's rights. She has a Masters in Politics from Rhodes University, and a Masters in Creative Writing from UCT. In 2010 she started a women's writing...

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